SCARBOROUGH – Matt Linscott of Biddeford was like a kid in a candy store Friday, poring over cartons labeled “War of 1812,” “Vengeful Texan” and “Live Free or Die.”

“I’ve never seen so many fireworks in one place,” he said as he and his friends Jon Cross and Jaimee Austin tried to figure out what would give them, literally, the biggest bang for their buck among the offerings at Atlas Fireworks Factory on Route 1.

Atlas, along with Phantom Fireworks at the Gateway Shoppes Plaza, had a steady stream of customers with the approach of July 4th, the ultimate fireworks holiday.

Both stores opened this month, the first in southern Maine since the Legislature legalized fireworks last year for anyone who’s 21 or older. This will be the first Independence Day since the 1940s when fireworks will be legal to sell and use in Maine.

While it’s popular with many consumers, the new law has its critics, and already has created problems.

Police report a jump in fireworks complaints and reports of shots being fired, which they attribute to fireworks.

“We’ve had 12 complaints for the entire year. We had three the prior year,” said Norway Police Chief Rob Frederico. “It certainly appears that the majority of the complaints are coming from the intown area, the more populated area.”

In the past, he said, most fireworks were set off by summer residents at lakeside cottages. There were few complaints, and little police could do because the illegal displays invariably were over before police could pinpoint their source.

Some safety officials and health care workers will be anxious as the first big fireworks holiday arrives. More fires and injuries are reported on July 4 in the U.S. than on any other date, and half of the fires are caused by fireworks, according to state officials.

“Even when they were outlawed in the state, we always were concerned because we knew a certain amount always came into the state,” said John Dean, a former state fire marshal. “Now, I’m afraid it’s going to be more of a free-for-all.”

Dean opposed efforts to allow sales and use of fireworks but, as a member of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, which favored lifting the ban, Dean was prohibited from testifying against the bill.

The law’s passage, by itself, did not lead Dean to resign, but his decision was influenced by what he said was a campaign by the administration to roll back regulations that he felt were important.

“There’s no question, in the states where the consumer fireworks are more readily available, there are more injuries and more fires,” Dean said. “It’s all about money. I might say it’s blood money.”

Dean said the law won’t be changed until fireworks, which burn at more than 1,200 degrees, cause something drastic to happen or seriously injure the child or grandchild of someone with influence.

Mike Baumann, head of emergency medicine for Maine Medical Center in Portland, said emergency room workers are bracing for the types of finger and eye injuries that have happened on past July 4 holidays, but he doesn’t know whether legal fireworks will lead to more problems.

“I think we see fireworks injuries whether they’re legal or not,” he said.

Scott Mitchell, the manager at Atlas Fireworks, said he pushes safety as much as anyone. “The only way fireworks are going to stay legal and everybody has fun is if everyone keeps safe,” he said.

The industry insists that fireworks, used responsibly, are safe. It cites numbers from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission showing that fireworks injuries are down even though sales are up.

There were three fireworks-related deaths and 8,600 injuries nationwide in 2010, according to the commission. Most fireworks injuries occur to people who are 15 and younger, Dean said.

One of the most important ways to avoid injuries is to keep fireworks out of children’s hands, said Maine’s acting fire marshal, Joe Thomas. He said his office is trying to educate people about the laws governing fireworks and about safe practices.

Thomas has assigned one of his investigators to fireworks and explosives education, and disseminating information about the new law.

The Pine Tree Burn Foundation funded the production of 5,000 brochures, and the state’s website, at www.maine.gov/dps/fmo/inspections/fireworks.html, has information about local ordinances, state restrictions and safety tips.

Under a provision of the state law, many cities and towns have adopted ordinances restricting or even banning fireworks. Restrictions range from the hours and dates fireworks can be used to prohibitions when fire danger rises.

The big bangs don’t come cheap. For about $20, an adult can buy a “Tiki Mon,” a cylinder with glowing eyes and mouth, a fountain of colored flame meant to resemble hair, and almost no noise.

Thirty dollars buys “The Big Shamrock,” which includes “willows” and “crackles” in the finale.

Customers who want a bigger display can go for “America’s Pride” military-themed packages, which cost $349 and include more than 100 explosions.

For customers who don’t know a “weeping willow” from a “fan” from a “peony,” a touch screen in the store shows a video of several of the popular products. Next to the screen is the list of municipalities that restrict or prohibit fireworks.

Mitchell, the store manager, said fireworks that are sold to consumers rival those he detonates as a professional who handles public displays.

“It gets you as close to being in the professional realm of pyrotechnics as you can be,” he said.

He sells the same fireworks his company uses for “close proximity” displays, when fans can be as close as 200 feet, like at a Portland Sea Dogs game.

“As enjoyable as they are, I know there are people who don’t like them,” Mitchell said. “They’re noisy. But everyone who comes in here brings up family memories.

“That’s what fireworks do,” he said. “It brings people together. I think it’s really cool.”

“It’s a fun time for everyone to get together,” said Cross, one of the shoppers Friday at Atlas. “It’s a good excuse to get together and set off some cool stuff.”

“I love the light shows,” said Brian Gonneville of Saco, who was shopping for fireworks to celebrate his daughter’s high school graduation and 18th birthday.

Sharon Kimball of Pownal was collecting an armful of fireworks, selecting those with bright lights and fewer loud explosions.

In the past, she went to Seabrook, N.H., to buy fireworks, going in the spring to avoid the pre-July 4 crackdown at the Maine border, she said.

Customers said they’re not worried that legal fireworks will be harmful in the long run.

“New Hampshire’s been doing it for years and nobody’s blown up that state yet,” said Jacob Eastman of South Portland. “For the next couple weekends, with it being the first time they’re legal, they’re going to blow up a lot, then it will settle down.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]